My Top 3 Neck and Upper Back Exercises for Desk Workers

Updated on September 14, 2018
rmcrayne profile image

Rose Mary has been an occupational therapist since 1987. She has extensive experience treating conditions of the hands and arms.

Reclined posture at your desk can lead to hand, arm or neck pain
Reclined posture at your desk can lead to hand, arm or neck pain | Source

Why Neck and Upper Back Exercises are Important

As an occupational therapist, I have treated hundreds of clients with various complaints of pain and other symptoms of the hands and arms. It was striking how many of these clients worked at a desk all day. Improved posture became a crucial part of treatment for the reduction of bothersome symptoms.

While treating the hands and arms with strategies such as braces, ice, and activity restrictions, I introduced ergonomic education and upper chest, neck, and shoulder stretches. Then I taught 3 sets of exercises for the neck and upper back. Technically they are strengthening exercises, but not in a body building sort of way. I think of them more as “wake up” exercises. You become more aware of the muscles you should be using to keep you from falling forward into a slump.

3 Exercises to Improve Neck and Upper Back Muscles (with pictures throughout)

Cervical isometrics

  • Neck flexion and extension
  • Left and right lateral flexion
  • Left and right rotation

IYTs

  • Position I
  • Position Y
  • Position T
  • Position reverse Y
  • Position reverse I

Rowing

Getting Started

Have you ever “over done it” at the gym? You do some strength training. Everything seems great, then 24 to 36 hours later, you’re sore. These posture exercises are not like working out with dumbbells or machines, but you can still overdo it. I always tell clients, any time you introduce something new, even stretches, be more conservative than you think you need to be.

Start out with sub-maximal effort, brief hold times, and just a few repetitions. Stay conservative for the first week. Build up gradually. I did photos of these exercises with my model seated, because so many of my desk workers are convinced they can’t leave their desk long enough to conduct an “exercise program”. They can certainly be done standing if you prefer. Set your alarm on your phone, and do one or two exercises every hour or two. You’ll be done in a minute or two.

1. Cervical Isometrics

When you do strength training for your biceps muscle in your upper arm, you might do biceps curls. Your biceps muscle contracts and shortens, and changes the angle of your elbow, bringing your forearm toward your upper arm. Isometric exercises are strengthening exercises, but when the muscle contracts, it does not shorten, and joint angles do not change.

Cervical isometrics consist of three sets of paired movements:

  • Neck flexion and extension
  • Left and right lateral flexion
  • Left and right rotation

You will be pushing against your fingers, strengthening your neck muscles, but preventing any movement with your fingers. Start out easy, not pushing into your fingers with your full effort. Hold each effort 3 to 5 seconds, then relax 5 seconds. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Increase over time to 5 to 10 repetitions with 5 second holds.

Neck Flexion

With your head straight and level, place your fingertips to the middle of your forehead. Push your head into your fingers, as though you were going to bring your head forward and place your chin toward your chest. Don’t actually move your head though.

Press your head into your fingers…
Press your head into your fingers… | Source
As though you are going to bend your head forward like this, but you won’t actually move your head. You should look like the first picture throughout.
As though you are going to bend your head forward like this, but you won’t actually move your head. You should look like the first picture throughout. | Source

Neck Extension

With your head straight and level, place the palm of your hand to the back of your head. Push your head straight back into your palm, as though you were going to bring your head backward to look up at the ceiling. Don’t actually move your head though.

Press your head into your hand…
Press your head into your hand… | Source
As though you are going to bend your head backward like this, but you won’t actually move your head. You should look like the first picture throughout.
As though you are going to bend your head backward like this, but you won’t actually move your head. You should look like the first picture throughout. | Source

Right and Left Lateral Flexion (Side Bending)

With your head straight and level, place your fingertips to the right side of your head, just above your ear. Push your head into your fingers, as though you were going to move your ear toward your shoulder. Then repeat for the left side.

Press your head into your fingers…
Press your head into your fingers… | Source
As though you are going to bend your head to the side like this, but you won’t actually move your head. You should look like the first picture throughout.
As though you are going to bend your head to the side like this, but you won’t actually move your head. You should look like the first picture throughout. | Source

Left and Right Rotation

With your head straight and level, place your fingertips to the left side of your head, just above your ear. Push your head into your fingers, as though you were going to move your chin toward your shoulder. Then repeat for the right side.

Press your head into your fingers…
Press your head into your fingers… | Source
As though you are going to turn your head to the side like this, but you won’t actually move your head. You should look like the first picture throughout.
As though you are going to turn your head to the side like this, but you won’t actually move your head. You should look like the first picture throughout. | Source

2. IYTs

2. IYTs

Remember The Village People, and their song YMCA? They formed the letters YMCA with their bodies as they sang. In this set of exercises, you will be forming the letters I, Y, and T, then upside down Y, and upside down I with your body. They will work your upper, middle, and lower trapezius muscles, and rhomboids.

These exercises are pictured with my model seated. As above, initially this seems more appealing to my primary client base of desk workers. They can however be done seated or lying face down on a mat. They can also be done with light dumbbells.

Start out easy, without weights. Hold each effort 3 to 5 seconds, then relax 5 seconds. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Increase over time to 5 to 10 repetitions with 5 second holds.

IYTs

  • Position I
  • Position Y
  • Position T
  • Position reverse Y
  • Position reverse I

Position I

Keep your head straight and level. Keep your elbows relatively straight, and raise your arms up in front of you, with your hands above your shoulders, and hands shoulder width apart. Keeping your arms straight, raise them up by your ears. Your arms and body (and legs if standing) are forming the uppercase letter “I”. Hold for a few seconds, then return to the starting position with arms in front of you.

This is your "I" position
This is your "I" position | Source
Raise your arms forward in front of you, with your hands shoulder width apart.
Raise your arms forward in front of you, with your hands shoulder width apart. | Source
Source
Raise your arms by your ears.
Raise your arms by your ears. | Source

Position Y

Keep your head straight and level. Keep your elbows relatively straight, and raise your arms up in front of you, with your hands above your shoulders, and hands about 30” to 36” apart. Keeping your arms straight, raise them up so that your body and your arms would be touching an imaginary wall. Your arms and body (and legs if standing) are forming the uppercase letter “Y”. Hold for a few seconds, then relax your arms back slightly in front of you.

Raise your arms forward in front of you, with your hands 30”-36” apart.
Raise your arms forward in front of you, with your hands 30”-36” apart. | Source
Side view
Side view | Source
This is your "Y" position
This is your "Y" position | Source
Raise your arms so that they align with your ears.
Raise your arms so that they align with your ears. | Source

Position T

Keep your head straight and level. Keep your elbows relatively straight, and raise your arms out to the side, with your hands at shoulder level, and hands about 20” in front of your body. Keeping your arms straight, move them backward so that your body and your arms would be touching an imaginary wall. Your arms and body (and legs if standing) are forming the uppercase letter “T”. Hold for a few seconds, then relax your arms back slightly in front of you.

This is your "T" position
This is your "T" position | Source
Source
Front view
Front view | Source
Move your arms backward, keeping them parallel to the floor.
Move your arms backward, keeping them parallel to the floor. | Source

Position reverse Y

Keep your head straight and level. Keep your elbows relatively straight, with your arms by your sides. Raise your arms in front of you about 20”, with your hands about 30” to 36” apart. Keeping your arms straight, move them backward so that your body and your arms would be touching an imaginary wall. Your body and arms are forming the upside-down uppercase letter “Y”. Hold for a few seconds, then relax your arms back slightly in front of you.

With your arms down by your sides, raise your hands about 20” in front of you, with your hands about 30”-36” apart.
With your arms down by your sides, raise your hands about 20” in front of you, with your hands about 30”-36” apart. | Source
Side view
Side view | Source
This is your reverse "Y" position
This is your reverse "Y" position | Source
Move your arms backward.
Move your arms backward. | Source

Position reverse I

Keep your head straight and level. Keep your elbows relatively straight, with your arms by your sides. Raise your arms in front of you about 20”, with your hands shoulder width apart. Keeping your arms straight, move them backward so that your body and your arms would be touching an imaginary wall. Your body and arms are forming the upside-down uppercase letter “I”. Hold for a few seconds, then relax your arms back slightly in front of you.

This is your reverse "I" position
This is your reverse "I" position | Source
With your arms down by your sides, raise your hands about 20” in front of you, with your hands about shoulder width apart.
With your arms down by your sides, raise your hands about 20” in front of you, with your hands about shoulder width apart. | Source
Front view
Front view | Source
Move your arms backward.
Move your arms backward. | Source

3. Rowing

3. Rowing

Rowing exercises will work your upper back muscles, such as your middle trapezius and rhomboid muscles. They can be done standing, or seated in a chair or on the floor. You can use hand weights, a weight machine, or exercises band. Start out easy, with no weight or resistance.

Start with your arms at your sides, elbows bent, forearms parallel to the floor. Then pull your arms backward, pressing your shoulder blades together.

Start with your arms at your sides, elbows bent, forearms parallel to the floor.
Start with your arms at your sides, elbows bent, forearms parallel to the floor. | Source
Pull your arms backward, pressing your shoulder blades together.
Pull your arms backward, pressing your shoulder blades together. | Source

Talk to Your Health Care Provider

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Consult your health care provider. Consider asking for an occupational therapy or physical therapy consult.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 rmcrayne

    Comments

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      • rmcrayne profile imageAUTHOR

        rmcrayne 

        3 months ago from San Antonio Texas

        Ladies, thanks so much for your support. I really appreciate it.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        3 months ago from Houston, Texas

        Thanks for the tutorial on how to do these exercises for those of us who spend long hours sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Pinning this to my health board so that others can also see this. Thanks for the photos as well as the clear instructions regarding how to do these exercises.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        3 months ago from the short journey

        Thanks so much! I've been letting my posture slide again, but need to remember what the consequences of thinking I'm too busy to attend to it will be. These are easy to remember, easy to do.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        3 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I think these exercises will do a lot to prevent future upper body problems. I was in physical therapy for a while, and they emphsized stretching my neck. Improving my posture was also discussed as I don't want to end up as a bent over old lady!

        I hope those who sit at desks all day will pay attention to what you wrote as I think it is very beneficial.

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